Copyright © 2004 Jean Marie Offenbacher

All rights reserved.

Letters 2004
 ReOrient FILMS     SYRIA     SCREENINGS & PRESS      PHOTOS      VIDEO      LETTERS       BLOG      CONTACTHOME.htmlSYRIA.htmlScreenings_and_Press.htmlPHOTOS.htmlvideo.htmlLetters.htmlblog/blog.htmlCONTACT.htmlshapeimage_3_link_0shapeimage_3_link_1shapeimage_3_link_2shapeimage_3_link_3shapeimage_3_link_4shapeimage_3_link_5shapeimage_3_link_6shapeimage_3_link_7

This long silent stretch has been due to a nasty lung infection that I developed in Beirut and cultured here in Syria. I did not slow down much to accommodate the pathogens, so yesterday I resorted to strong antibiotics. Air pollution will be an ongoing issue for me here. The cars run on benzene and most do not have catalytic converters, and many people smoke.

Have settled into life in Damascus nicely. I have a 4-bedroom/2-bath apartment in the center of the city. A great juice bar called “Abou Shaker” is just downstairs.  A few blocks away is the Umayyad Mosque, where St. John the Baptist is buried - no marked tomb for Salome. The apartment is the childhood home of Hanan Ksab Hassan, and the street is named after her father. The local vendors are all very kind and try to get me to eat sweets everyday.

The markets smell wonderful - in the spicy sections, not too lovely in the meaty sections. Food shopping is fun, but I leave the cooking mostly to my maid, who is Bedouin. Her daughter is at university and she likes to come with her mother to practice her English and translate for us. She accompanies me to the market. Her father has a second wife and compels her to wear hijab. Her situation is apparently very rare and considered backward. As she is at university, she should have a better life than her mother. Hopefully she learns to cook like her mom. Homecooking is excellent and comes in huge quantities. Luckily I am friendly, so I have met enough people to fill many dinner parties.

It is easy to pop over to Jordan or Beirut. The drive to Beirut is only about an hour. Jordan is two or three hours away. When I drove into Beirut, I was filming the border guards. One of them wagged his finger and smiled to let me know that it was illegal to film, then he came to the car to extend a warm welcome.

Tomorrow I depart for Aleppo where I will stay in a renovated old house from the early Ottoman Empire.

Damascus is a wonderful city, especially the Old Town. Every other week a fabulous new restaurant opens in a renovated traditional house,

People here are super kind - whenever I get lost, someone always stops to escort me, all of the way to my destination, even if it is across town. I have maintained acquaintances with many of people who I met on the street. Thursday, I will travel to Deir ez Zur and visit a family, who I met over juice at Abu Shaker.

Security is high without any noticeable presence of security forces. The only element of danger is the traffic. Syrian driving style is hysteria inducing, from the pavement or the passenger seat. If there are 3 lanes drawn, there are 5 or 6 cars side by side jockeying for first to slam the brakes at a pedestrian.

I am having a great time. Had one scary moment, while visiting a friend in the mountains in a resort town called Bloudan. A family from Faluja stopped by to look at her house as it is for sale. This family lost everything in the invasion of Iraq and ensuing rebellion, including a 5-kitchen house. I would not speak for fear they would know I was American and even my friend told me she was nervous because they were making so many queries about me. I remained mute and stared out from the balcony, as though I was delighted by the mountain views, while my friend distracted them with questions about their education and children.

The next day I met another group from Iraq at St. Paul's Chapel in Old Town Damascus (where St. Paul went to get healed when he lost his vision and changed his name). When they asked me where I was from, I heard myself quack "Denmark", before I could register that I had nothing to fear from them. They were from Mosul and Baghdad and spoke Aramaic. I recorded them saying prayers in this ancient tongue and they invited me to visit their homes.

A friend of mine visited from Beirut over the weekend and he said, "I hate you, you know Syria better than I and I have been here many times." I am pretty good at negotiating the maze of the Old Town (and proud of it ).  Whenever I am lost I call a friend and hand my phone to my taxi driver, or I look lost and someone stops and takes the time to escort me to my destination.

The traffic is insane - the types of things that would cause major road rage happen 3 times a block and no one gets stuck on the angst. It is the 2nd safest city in the world. The crime rate is almost zero, due to tight families, and a rigorous gossip network.

I just arrived in Aleppo to stay with a friend, who is an Anthropology Professor at Princeton. He lives in a house that is in all the guidebooks, the only house in the souk, the former Venetian Consul. It is hundreds of years old and very lovely. My room is a dainty and pretty cell. I am happy to be in a home.

On Thursday, I will travel to Deir ez Zur in the desert (not far from Mosul) to visit a nice family I met while drinking juice a couple of weeks ago in Damascus. They handed me their baby to play with, I took pictures, and they invited me to visit. I will arrive the day Ramadan starts. They particularly like strangers during Ramadan. I will not fast, but I will oblige and participate in the feasting at sunset - every evening for a month.

I am interviewing Samer’s delightful quintet of girls. One is a fine pianist and the other is an Arabian beauty, who has made some keen political observations on camera. She is shy and felt that her English was not good enough, so she insisted on interviewing in Arabic. She reflected that “the U.S. is technologically superior and has so many wonders to dazzle Syrians, but Syria has something that the U.S. does not – Syria has peace.”

The religion here is open and tolerant. My friends, who are devout Muslims, are happy to discuss religion and politics. I don’t have to hold back. When I witnessed a friend who covers in hijab and loose gown throwing her trash on the ground, I mentioned that I thought her god would prefer me to her  because though I am not a believer I would never pollute. She thought for a minute and said, “this is a good point.”

I have been offline for several days in Palmyra. There are only a couple of internet cafes in the whole town. Palmyra is the only place in Syria to fnd camels.

Camels are very uncomfortable and cranky. My camel tried to runaway into the remote reaches of the desert with me. I managed to stop and hold the frisky beast until my guide caught up with us - and his frantically beating heart. He told me that in the past his camel had never behaved so naughtily.

Camels are amazingly strong. They make a noise like a dinosaur when they are about to challenge authority and seize control. They move too slowly, and when they trot, especially at high speed, the ride is extremely bumpy - my hips could not keep up and I was debating whether I would suffer greater long-term health consequences by staying on the bumpy back or taking a high dive onto the rocky desert surface below.

I will return to Palmyra to ride Arabian horses to a hot springs. I am arranging a group now, but the longer we wait the more frigid the desert nights. I was blue-cold the other morning when I went out camel riding before sunrise (began at 3:45am) and I was wearing two t-shirts and a thick fleece pullover with a fleece headband, jeans and sneakers (the Nike style with camel toes). Fortunately, Ahmed loaned me his coat, so the cold became somewhat tolerable.

Warm regards from Latakia now,

I am making a documentary/art film about the Syrian people and will include scenes with ministers from the government. I am avoiding politics and the economy in all of my interviews. My aim is to present a realistic portrait of the country. Syria is safe and the population kind and generous. If people in the West had a deeper, more honest knowledge of these Middle Eastern people, I believe we would all be safer.

I have met a variety of characters - children to ancients; taxi drivers, artists and engineers - and filmed them in conversation. I have filmed scenes to depict the diversity and religious tolerance, such as one scene in which I pan from a group of women bobbing in the sea, in full fundamental costumes including scarves (they are probably foreigners from the Gulf), to three bikini clad femmes on cell phones basking in the sun.

It would not be possible for me to allow journalists along on my interviews with government officials. The support I am receiving seems to be based on my status as an independent artist. I do not want to be affiliated with a news agency.

Last January a friend of mine, in New York, mentioned over dinner, that he had recently visited Syria and found the people exceptionally nice. The idea that people in Syria are kind struck me as a radical concept. I decided make a documentary to demonstrate the humanity of Syrians, for American and European audiences.

I would like to film Minister Shaaban, because she occupies a powerful position in the government. I would like to use her interview to weaken the negative impressions that women are oppressed and the Syrian government is a harsh regime.

I prefer to spend time with her Excellency in a casual setting, discussing her personal life and history: college days, children, husband, and ascension to the ministry. I would like to hear her observations on evolving social norms in the Middle East and the world. Questions may include:

Politicians in the U.S. are preoccupied with "family values", how would you define this concept and how would you characterize Syria in terms of domestic arrangements.

Do you think the wearing of scarves is a political, religious or fashion statement?

How have social dynamics at universities changed since you were a student?

What did you study . . . where . . . discuss memorable professors?

What sports do you like? Do you have time to engage in sports?

Which movies, books, plays do you favor?

Any or all of these paths of inquiry lead to stories and a deeper understanding of her Excellency as a well-rounded person. My approach to presenting players in my film is to engage in conversation and allow my subject to find her comfort zone in front of the camera. As we talk, I become aware of themes that the subject is more expert or passionate.

I am sorry this statement is so hastily prepared, but I hope you see through the shortcomings of this presentation and understand the potential positive bridge I believe my film can help to build and choose to spend some time with me and my camera.

Spain was a tiny piece of the Umayyad Empire, which flourished over a wide geographic territory. I suspect that Spain was inseminated with the Arabic flirt, dance, architecture and language.

Arabic is a difficult language to learn. Last week, after hearing the election results I mastered:

“Ana upkey min al aalum” meaning “I cry for the world.”

I have an appointment to meet one the most important ministers in Syria and she is meant to be lovely.

Can you hear a skipping sound, it is my heart trying to yell hooray.

Jasmine hugs,

Jean Marie

    . . . where are you. Gavin left here yesterday.

I have been very depressed about the elections. The impact here is very sad. The people are still wonderful and keep saying that they love American people but cannot understand why our government hates them. I try to explain that they are blinded by oil - it is a dark, sticky substance and is difficult to remove from infected eyes.

Each day I meet new people who I want to interview. Last night, I filmed my local juice shop, Abou Shaker. The handsome, 27-year-old grandson has been teaching me Arabic for an hour or two on days that I am available for the past few weeks. Yesterday when I asked for my bill from two weeks of juice, he told me that he wrote the tab in water. Everyone is a poet. Arabic is difficult. A subtle shift in accent sends you from saying something pleasant to  . . . something rude or bizarre.

Instead of going to bars, many people go out with their families, until 2am, to drink fresh juice concoctions and fruit sundaes. Abou Shaker is famous all over the Middle East and it is just downstairs from my apartment. Last night I filmed the throngs carrying huge, fancy sundaes into the street to eat along the sidewalk.

My friend, Gavin, visited from London last weekend and we went to Sednaya and Malula where the people still speak Palestinian Aramaic, the language of Jesus. I brought some oil and incense from the altars of the oldest churches in the Christian world, for you. Saturday we went to Bosra, where 2000 year old homes are still inhabited. There is a perfect Roman coliseum there too.

Love and jasmine kisses and coffee hugs,

Jean Marie

I may be in Jordan from Sunday afternoon until Wednesday night and my phone will not work there. It is always beside me otherwise and rarely turned off - there is very little theatre or cinema here.

Yesterday I had a nice interview with the Minister of Immigrants. I will meet her again to teach her yoga and how to make hot chocolate. She drinks too much coffee. She is great for my stereotype-busting film: she is feminine, powerful, and speaks perfect English. I casually proposed some ideas I had to improve the environment and she is interested. Environmental education here has not been initiated – plastic bags are everywhere.

Last night I filmed a hyper-sexy lingerie display and women in hyper-fundamentalist black dresses with veils coming out of the shop. You would not believe some of the lingerie. I am buying a red, patent leather bra that is a pair of long gloves with long fingernails, the hands grab the breasts into place - something for my sister-in-law to liven up Christmas.

Let me know if you what something to scare your fiancé.

The mood since the election is as depressed here, as it seems to be in the rest of the world. It is difficult to be an American, no longer able to raise the argument that he is only the "un-elected". People remain very kind, many calling to offer condolences and strangers continue to reassure that they like Americans but fear our government. Last night at a dinner of elite, college-age Syrians, several expressed concern that Syria may come under fire. The only reassurance I offered was to suggest that we might not be able to afford another war.

I have delayed a trip to Deir Ez Zur and Mari due to weather. Probably the clouds protect me: it may not be a great time to be sightseeing along the Iraq border.

I had a small scare in a taxi in Aleppo at 5am as I headed for the airport. The driver was accompanied by another man, who asked me, from where did I come.  Without thinking, I replied "New York". They spoke about New York in Arabic and proceeded to drive into a poor neighborhood in the opposite direction from the airport. I went over Thai boxing moves in my head, and assumed a listless aspect to maintain the advantage of surprise should they attempt to make any aggressive move against me. The driver was merely dropping off his friend; but, then drove on to his own house and indicated that he would take a nap and a shower. I think he really thought I might like to come in for some tea – or something - while he freshened up, but I indicated my watch and said “Here, Airport” meaning to say “Airport Now”.  I got airport fast. It was my first encounter with a rude man . . . hope, the last

I will not be allowed to leave the country to celebrate the Eide in Jordan. Had rather nasty incident with Bureau of Passports, so I will stay here and film nice Syrians.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Deir Ez Zur and Mari to a distance of 7 kilometers from Iraq. The area is deeply exposed to the tragedy next door and I felt embarrassed to be an American, but could not hide my identity and nearly caused a riot on a bus when I asked the driver to refrain from smoking - never has a request to stop smoke created so much fire. The people here, of course, identify with the citizens of Iraq who are just trying to get their lives back. The situation on the bus heated up very quickly and some men seemed to want to attack me, but other men were leaping in and everyone was yelling about America and Iraq. I was sorry about the ruckus, but it is illegal to smoke on public transportation in Syria, so I was only asking to enforce their laws. Eventually, the bus settled down and I realized that even the angriest person posed no danger. Pain grows heavier in the air closer to Iraq.

There are checkpoints all along the highway to the border. At one point, a security agent tried to detain us. I suspected he wanted to shake us down for a bribe, so I snatched our identity papers from his hands and told him good day. He was a little shocked and kept saying, “welcome” and scratched his head; meanwhile, my friend turned white, as I commanded him to get back in the car and drive. I was late for lunch and hungry. Later my friend’s sister said she was happy that I stood up to the guard; otherwise, her brother would have paid the corrupt fellow.

I had previous experience in Damascus, which provided impetus to my decision to slap and run. One night a friend of mine was stopped for a minor traffic infraction, on our way to pick up his girlfriend. We were already late. The police were trying to get my friend to hand over his id. Another car pulled up beside us and asked the cop for directions, at which point, my friend put his car in gear and accelerated away as though a tornado was chasing us. We took a circuitous route, screaming around corners and eventually, my friend decided we had shaken the coppers. I was surprised, because this fellow is very straight and law abiding. He told “Never give your id to anyone in a uniform. They will take your time and money. It is a game.”…So I knew how to handle the checkpoint.

In Mari, I was starving (ana jouani), so some nice Bedouins gave me a lunch of flat bread, cucumbers and sheep butter and other assorted tea sandwich makings - very nice.

Back in Deir Ez Zur, I shot great scenes of a family dancing and creating their own music and making that sound that only Arab women can make with the tongue. The man of the family is a taxi driver, who teaches folk dance for fun. The women of the house had spent two days preparing a feast for me. I love to cook, but these dishes are so site specific and complex, I will have to keep a piece of each year in my schedule to get my dose of Syrian home cooking.

Last week I traveled to Haleb (Aleppo) and enjoyed and suffered many adventures from wild dog attack to domestic nouveau riche smothering. One night my friend John and I were walking home to home to his house (the former Venetian Consul) in the heart of the labyrinthine souq, when 3 dogs appeared at the end of a long alley. We froze, controlled our breath and avoided eye contact - all to no avail, those feral beasts snarled and leapt at us. John was using my favorite Bill Amberg leather bag (heavy with my camera, the tool of my trade) to fend them off, while we centimetered our way out of the alley. Meanwhile, one wily member of the pack raced past us so they could carry on their assault from both sides. Eventually we escaped unscathed except for the scratches terror rent on my heart and dreams. We heard gunshots later that night – one for each dog; and the locals were amazed at our tale. Very few people in Syria keep dogs, except Bedouins who use them to herd sheep. These dogs must have wandered into the city and become disoriented. We were near the meat souq when we encountered them.

The next day, I awakened to another scary night. I accepted the dinner invitation of a wealthy, uneducated woman. The house had 5 kitchens and the hostess fed me tea and cake (do I look like a dark-dye Barbie). I would have thought she was being anti-American, but I doubt she even knows about Iraq - nowhere to buy jewelry. She wanted me to film the house she decorated. It is heavy on the ivory as these people have business in Nigeria. I refrained from telling her that the barbaric ivory trade has been banned since I was a baby. The furniture she made from tusks alone would have been reason enough for a ban on aesthetic grounds.

At her home I met a character I really wanted to film, but she is married to one of the Kuwaiti royals (to use the word very lightly, 20th century royalty by appointment). Apparently, they do not like their women to be in the spotlight, but she was having a tough fight with the ham in her heart. Eventually, I ran into her again at the couturier I was filming and I requested a model, so she rose to the task with a scarf draped over her head. .

I celebrated the Syrian version of Halloween, an affair the Christians here call Saint Barbara's Night. It is a fine display of the not-remotely-prudish side of Syrian life. The next morning in the airport at 6:30am, following a 20-minute-sleep night, an obscenely good-looking young man approached me, and informed me that he was the female nurse who was mugging his breasts and thighs for me the night before. He is much sexier as a man.

I interviewed a female Member of Parliament, but will not know how the interview went until I translate . . . more on the translator later.

This past weekend my friends Basel and Fawaz took me straight from the airport in Damas to Tadmor (Palmyra) where my Bedouin friends showed us a wonderful weekend. Fawaz and Basel had not ridden horses before and they rode like champs around to ruins; but, wisely, declined to join me on a 40 kilometer ride to hot springs (they drove). It took me about 2hours and 15 minutes riding, because I made my horse walk and catch his breath from time to time, when wild sheep dogs were not chasing us. Syrians, especially the Bedouin Syrians, are tea-addicted, so about 1/2 hour out from the hot springs, we stopped, gathered some desert grass and twigs, made a fire and had a tea break.

When we arrived, I was escorted to a large tent to meet one of the Bedouin elders, and drink tea. News of my ride had preceded me, and he challenged me to participate in a race. I will return to race in April on Ahmed’s Arab horse, while he rides his famously valuable Arabian stallion. The winner takes the loser’s horse. My Bedouin friends are willing to risk their horse, because they are confident that I will win.

The Saleh family, my Bedouin friends, treated us to fresh camel milk and camel kebabs the first night and slaughtered a sheep for dinner after the hot springs ride. The sheep mensaf is one of the most delicious meals that ever passed my palate. We were also treated to delicious snacks: fresh black dates, homemade olives, macdous and sheep laban. I wrote a “thank you” that they found poetic, in the guest book of the as-yet-not-open hotel, so the artist /designer gave me a lovely piece of glass and steel art as a thank you gift for my thank you. He was curious to know how I knew a certain Arabic word "darpatabani" (travelers way)- I explained that I make a point of knowing words to do with romance and food. I cannot ask my way to the bus station, but I can find the stars and order the food.

It is tempting to stay for Christmas; Christianity was founded here in Damascus. The decorations are starting to go up. Many Muslim babies and toddlers are sporting Santa Claus costumes.

The camel milk was very nice, even though my friend Fawaz repeatedly reminded me that it was not boiled. He is a little squeamish and did not experience the joys of camel milk. Actually, they do not say "camel milk", jamal is a male camel and naga is a female camel, so I drank naga milk. (Do you think I have discovered the source of nagahyde?) The flavor is similar to cow milk and the consistency is less creamy, but it is meant to have wondrous health benefits. It is supposed to help cure breast cancer and help men stay sexy for a long time.

I filmed President Assad and his elegant wife, Asma. I will call her tomorrow to try to arrange an interview. I filmed them as they were leaving the National Museum. I approached with my hands in my huge bag, groping about to collect my camera parts, and I was allowed to approach and stand close to them, filming for a couple minutes. They are relaxed in public and available for discussion with their citizens. Most people here seem to hold Assma al Assad in high esteem. She is active in charity, especially with orphans, who are not available for adoption as there is no such precedent in Arab culture; otherwise, Syria would be a great place to get a baby.

On Monday afternoon, I was hauled down to the Ministry of Information for questions and a legal briefing. I had gone to the Ministry of Tourism to request an interview with the Minister Agha Kaalaa. His counsel asked if I had a permit; I replied that I did not think it was necessary. She informed me that it was their law and asked how I got my equipment into the country. She called the Ministry of Information, and they were eager to interview me. A driver appeared and I was driven to Mezze.

On the way I called the American Embassy, but could only leave a message on an answering machine. When I called a friend with influence, he told me not to mention any names...?

I met the Director of Foreign Media, and though he spoke some English, he included a translator. They gave me tea, water and nice sesame cookies after asking me why I had broken their laws and hearing my explanation. I explained that I was embarrassed and sorry that I missed the opportunity to meet them earlier and take advantage of their services. They agreed to give me a press pass next visit; even though I explained that I am the anti-press. Syrians, even the ones I met working in the government (with the exception of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Bureau of Passports), are nice people, especially considering that the regime in my country is breathing rocket propelled missiles and F17's down their back.

I was a bit nervous that the Ministry of Information folks were not as nice as they appeared and might try to take my film at the airport, but they were true to their faces and I had breezed out as easily as I had breezed in.

The three of us had a wonderful weekend with you in Palmyra. I have not experienced such happiness since. I am already planning my return March or the beginning of April. I hope Ahmed can delay his departure for military service and take me for one more adventure in the desert.

We visited with Hayan the night we returned from Tadmor. His house in Damascus is beautiful. He took Fawaz and I to dinner. If I were a god, I would give all of you winged horses.

I shall keep in touch and see you when the weather is perfect.

Merry Christmas and a New Year full of kind and wise people.

Please forward this missive to the attention of The Minister of the Syrian Diaspora. I received a call from a friend in Palmyra concerning the impending doom described below.

I wish you a very joyous and prosperous New Year - and hope to see you upon a return visit to Syria in April.

I am writing to urge you to prevent the demise of a remarkable moment of modern architecture in Syria. It is a new hotel compound, financed by the Orient Group and located tastefully in the oasis of Tadmor. The project is the vision of a Palmyrian artist named Hayan and the product of his many Bedouin minions in construction. The originality on the part of the designer and care on that of the workers is rare. The attention to detail and involvement of craftsmen in the project is reminiscent of the work of Gaudi, the Barcelonian architect.

The project, scheduled for completion this spring, is under attack by an authority vested with power through his association with the National Museum. I believe his name is Tamam Fakoush. Apparently this fellow has ordered a fleet of trucks and workmen to the site to begin destruction today. This project marks the only architecture in the country's modern era that exerts indigenous genius. It is a unique landmark that deserves to remain intact amid the elegant ruins of Tadmor. Hayan's hotel and Zenobia's ruins should endure together as part of Syria's patrimony.

Currently, the traveler to Tadmor is struck by the banality and vulgarity of the accommodations offered. Possibilities range from the Cham Palace, in and of itself an architectural homunculus and blight on the vista of the ruins, to an assortment of bland and mostly unsanitary choices in town.

When I was in Tadmor, I filmed Hayan's hotel project and have shown the footage to several people in France, England and New York. All who saw it were very enthusiastic to schedule a vacation. The hotel itself is a destination. It would be a great shame to allow the destruction of native structures so fine, beautiful and inviting to the human senses.

Wishing you a happy New Year.

Sincerely yours,

Jean Marie Offenbacher